by Ben Kenigsberg
is a small-scale
Bonfire of the Vanities
-- a satire on the fact that many people are only superficially ruthless and that others, especially in New York it seems, really are.
It tells the story of two men who meet when one hits the other on the FDR Drive. Both are in a hurry. Gavin Banek (Ben Affleck) is a rich, ambitious attorney. Doyle Gipson (Samuel L. Jackson) is an ex-alcoholic and struggling insurance salesman on the brink of divorce.
Gavin hands Doyle a check and speeds off without heeding Doyle's pleas that they exchange contact info -- that they obey the law. Before leaving, Gavin drops a file that he needs in order to prove his innocence in a lawsuit.
Because of the accident, Doyle misses his appointment in divorce court and loses custody of his children. Had Gavin given him a lift to the courthouse -- ironically, both men were traveling to the same place -- he might have been able to save his marriage.
Gavin and his partners at the firm are being sued. The daughter of an old benefactor thinks that the lawyers coerced her father into signing his profitable organization over to them when he was too sick to realize what he was doing. Gavin has until the end of the day to show the court the document with the father's signature on it -- the file that he dropped on the FDR -- and, presumably, he'll be free to go.
Does it matter if Gavin coerced the signature? More than you'd think, really.
starts as an impressive and complex cat-and-mouse game, but then it makes the same mistake as the film adaptation (but not the book) of
: it wants to teach its viewers about Decency.
has the right set up, but the wrong conclusion. There hasn't been this irrational a spate of good cheer at the end of a movie since Jimmy Stewart shouted, "Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls!" Until its last half-hour,
is deeply but reasonably cynical. It's not that I'm doubting the character's capacity to change -- indeed, the movie's title is a metaphor -- but in general, one's willingness to do good is subordinated to one's desire to save one's behind. What one of the two men does at the end of the film is self-crucifixion.
The filmmakers have seriously underestimated their audience's intelligence. Had the conclusion been bitter, the message would have been the same -- and maybe even more powerful, because the audience would have gotten the message on its own.
If you can set aside the ending, there's the wind-up, which is quite good. The film opens by contrasting Doyle and Gavin. We see Gavin giving a speech at a benefit, but hear Doyle's voice as he speaks at an AA meeting on the soundtrack. When Doyle hears that his request for a loan has been approved, we hear the laughter Gavin receives at the benefit. We sense the difference between the two men: Gavin lives in a world of luxury -- a world of success and affirmation. Doyle's life is more precarious: he's at the bottom of the heap, and having a loan approved is one of the best things that has ever happened to him.
One of the more original aspects of
, directed by Roger Michell (
) and written by Chap Taylor and Michael Tolkin, is that it validates both lifestyles. Gavin isn't a bad man simply because he's wealthy. He's a bad man because he makes impetuous decisions. And we aren't supposed to feel sorry for Doyle because he's down on his luck: he would have been a fine father, husband, and salesman if he hadn't turned to the bottle.
Some of the supporting characters are equally intriguing. There's Sydney Pollack as Gavin's partner at the law firm, who's willing to forge the lost document as long as he can say that, ultimately, he's done more good than bad. There's Toni Collette as Gavin's ultra-ethical partner at the law firm, who is willing to bend only to save Gavin. There's Dylan Baker as a computer hacker whom Gavin asks to turn off Doyle's credit, which the hacker thinks is every bit as harmless as putting a shock collar on a dog. "Is there any other way?" Gavin asks him. "Well, sure," the hacker replies. "Call him up and just be nice to him."
The best scenes show Gavin trying to choose between the most pragmatic thing to do -- forging the document -- and the most satisfying thing to do -- reconciling with his rival. That's a real moral dilemma, and the film doesn't quite explore it to the degree it could have.
Doyle is never faced with the same kind of dilemma that Gavin is, but our sympathy is with him for most of the movie anyway because he's trying to buy a house for his children and trying to cure his alcoholism. Moreover, he's the one who wants to handle the car accident properly. Jackson gives a great performance (as if he were capable of any other kind) that appropriately emphasizes both of Doyle's sides -- his idealism and his anger.
is so emotionally tangled that its resolution should have packed a real punch. But that ending, oh, that ending! I suppose that if the characters can move on, then so can I.